The words of that marvelous hymn were written by J. Wilbur Chapman in 1910, and that hymn is the theme of what I want to share with you tonight. Jesus, what a friend for sinners. God said, after creating man, “It is not good for man to be alone.” And that’s still true. Man needs companionship. Man needs a friend. And I think even secular man realizes that. For the world heralds and hails and hallmarks the value and the virtue of friendship. In fact, the philosophizing about friendship goes on and on and on. Irene Keepin, a writer, contemporary writer said, “A friend is a person who does his knocking before he enters rather than after he leaves.” Pretty good definition.
Someone said, “I’m the kind of friend you can depend on. I’m always around when I need you.” And somebody else said, “If you really want to know who your friends are, make a big mistake.” “I went out to find a friend, but could not find one there. I went out to be a friend, and friends were everywhere.” Someone wrote, “A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of his heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
An English publication offered a prize for the best definition of a friend. They received these statements: “A friend is one who multiplies joy and divides grief.” “A friend is one who understands my silence.” “A friend is a volume of sympathy bound in flesh.” But here’s the best one: “A friend” – this is the one that won the prize – “is one who comes in when everybody else has gone out.” Someone wrote, “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I’m with you. I love you not only for what you have made of yourself but for what you are making of me. I love you not by closing your ears to the discords in me, but for adding to the music in me by your worshipful listening. You have done it without a touch and without a word and without a sign. You have done it by just being yourself.”
Those are all lovely thoughts, and there are many more. The Hebrews understood friendship. In fact, in the Old Testament, you find three words for friend, and although they have almost interchangeable meanings at some points, there’s seems to be some distinction. The first Hebrew word for friend is the word ra’ah. It means an associate, somebody you keep company with. The best English word would be an acquaintance, somebody you know fairly well. In fact, it says in Proverbs 18:24, “A man who has acquaintances must show himself friendly.” In other words, if you’re open to folks, you’re going to make friends on a superficial level and they’ll become your acquaintances.
Now, sociologists and psychologists tell us that you can probably have about 200 of these people in your life, 200 acquaintances, folks you know fairly well, you feel comfortable with, you keep company with. Maybe you work alongside them or your – some particular neighbor on the block that you just feel a kind of a warmth toward. And maybe in your life you’ll have 200 acquaintances like this.
Then there’s another Hebrew word, the word alooth, and this means to be gentle with, to be familiar with, and this takes friendship a step further. This, we would call close friends, people you talk with, perhaps about real significant issues, people you might share a vacation with, a weekend, a study of the Scripture. But then there’s a – and by the way, you might have about 25 of those kind of friends at any given point in your life. Close friends. In other words, you can miss them for a year or two, and when you see them again, you pick up the conversation right where it left off.
But then there’s the word ahav – ahav. It means intimate, close companion, and in Proverbs 18:24 it uses the word ahav when it says, “There is a friend that sticketh closer than a” – what? – “brother.” This is an intimate friend, and maybe in your lifetime you’d have two or three of those really intimate friends at any given point in your life. Different kinds of friendship. That kind of intimacy, I think, is expressed in 1 Samuel 18 when it says, “The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”
And it says that Jonathan and David had a love that surpasses the love that a man would have for a woman. They had a deep, profound love. In Proverbs 27:6, it says, “Faithful are the wounds of an ahav.” An intimate friend not only loves you with intimacy, but an intimate friend would tell you the truth, even if it hurt.
There’s another element in this kind of intimate friendship, and that is in John 15:13 where the Lord said, “Greater love hath no man than this, than that a man lay down his” – what? - “life for his friends.” The truest of the true friend, the ahav, is one with whom there is an intimacy based on love that sticks closer than a brother. It is a relationship where there would be such honesty even to wound the person if for their good, and thirdly, where one would even die for the other. Do you have many friends like that? If you have one, you’re fortunate, very fortunate.
Dickens tried to portray this kind of a friend in The Tale of Two Cities. You remember Charles Darnay, a young nobleman caught up in the violence of the French Revolution. Personally, he was blameless. He was unjustly sentenced to the guillotine. His dear friend, Sydney Canter, came, drugged him, took his place in the cell and had his head chopped off for his friend. It was said of William Gladstone of Britain that he had a great love for people, and that he had such a deep friendship with the princess that on the death of her daughter, he leaned into the casket and tenderly kissed the sweet face of that child, knowing all the time that the child had died of a deadly infectious diphtheria.
Friendship is like that. In its fullest expression, it is seen as a relationship of inseparable love and affection. It is seen as a relationship of absolute truthfulness, and it is seen as a relationship of ultimate self-sacrifice.
Let me tell you something, dear people. By that definition, the greatest friend that ever lived is Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ is more intimate with us than any relationship, closer than a brother, and never does He leave. Jesus will speak to us the truth, though it cut us to the core, for He knows that when the surgery is done we’ll be better for it. And Jesus gave His life for us. That’s the truest friend there could be. J. Wilbur Chapman was right. “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners” – that lovely hymn really sums it up. He was a friend of sinners.
Look with me for a moment in your Bible at Luke chapter 4, and this is going to be brief, so I want you to stay close with me to the text. “And He came to Nazareth” – Luke 4:16 – “where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read. And there was delivered unto Him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me.” Now, here comes Jesus defining the parameters of His own ministry, to preach the Gospel to the poor.
“He hath sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised.” Did you notice that all those are the down-and-out, the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, and the bruised? The hurting, the friendless, the lonely, the left-out were those to whom He came.
Now, this is stated again and again. For example, in Matthew 9, verse 10, “It came to pass as Jesus sat eating in the house. Behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples.” Tax collectors in those days were extortioners and criminals, by the way. “And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto His disciples, ‘Why eateth your master with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard that, He said unto them, ‘They that are well need not a physician but they that are sick, and go and learn what that means. I will have mercy and not sacrifice. For I am not come to call the righteous but’” – what? “‘sinners to repentance.’”
That was a blast at them. They thought they were so righteous. Jesus said, “I can’t help people who don’t know they’re sinners.” Jesus met with sinners because they were the only ones that knew they needed a friend, and He was a friend to sinners. In Matthew 11 – you remember this – verse 28, “Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.” Uses two very interesting Greek words. Labor is kopiaō, to be weary, to be fatigued, to be exhausted, to work to the point of sweat. In other words, “Come unto Me all ye that have had it and are heavy laden, burdened.” And what is the biggest burden that any man carries? Sin.
“If you’ve had it with your sin, if you’ve had it with trying to fulfill the law of God on your own, if you’re weary and exhausted, at the end of your tether, come to Me and take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” You see, Jesus came to the people who couldn’t carry the load anymore, came to the people who were hurting, the people whose spiritual backs were broken. Couldn’t do a thing with the Pharisees. Couldn’t do a thing with the scribes. They didn’t think they were sinners. They didn’t think they had any need.
Look at Luke 15 for a moment, verse 1. “Then drew near unto Him all the tax collectors and sinners to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, ‘This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.’” Beloved, that’s about the best compliment they ever paid Him. That’s exactly why He came, and He explained it in verse 3. He spoke a parable, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doesn’t leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ I say unto you that likewise joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
By the way, those ninety-nine aren’t true followers. The parable is this: I’m looking for the people who know they’re lost. I’m looking for the people who want to repent, not for those who think they don’t need Me. God is interested in sinners. Verse 8, He goes on and gives them another illustration. “What woman, having ten pieces of silver, she loses one piece, doesn’t light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she find it? When she’s found it, calls her friends and her neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me. I have found the piece which I had lost.’ Likewise I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” Then He goes on to tell one more story, and that’s the story about a prodigal son who came back and the joy and the celebration.
See, God is interested in being a friend to sinners. Came to save sinners. That’s what Paul said. And the religious establishment refused His friendship because they wouldn’t admit they were sinful. This is all drawn into perfect contrast in the 8th chapter of John, and I want you to look at that for just a brief few moments, John 8, and we’re just going to highlight this. But listen, verse 3, John 8, “And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto Him a woman taken in adultery.” Stop right there.
Scribes and the Pharisees always wanted to pin Jesus to the wall with some theological question that He couldn’t extricate Himself from and, therefore, discredit Himself in the face of the people. They were always trying to trap Him in His words, and they had really developed the ultimate trap this time. They caught a woman in an act of adultery. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually got the man to do it to her just to create the trap because the man doesn’t show up. We don’t know who he is. He may have been part of the trap.
But they ripped this woman out of an adulterous relationship, and they shove her in front of Jesus, right in the middle of the temple with all the people around Him. Verse 3, “They set her in the midst,” and what did they say? “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act,” and they are acting in a holy, indignant, self-righteous manner. They are acting furious about this sin against God. “This woman has been caught in the act of adultery” – very serious.
The law of God was very clear about that. Leviticus 20:10 says, “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, even who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death.” They didn’t keep all the law, by the way, the man wasn’t there; they just kept the part they wanted. They had a double standard, you see. They didn’t mind abusing a woman. They wouldn’t touch a man. So they weren’t really self-righteous. They were just trying to trap Jesus. But, nonetheless, the law says she should die.
The Mishnah, which is the codification of Jewish law, even said this is such a serious sin that, when you catch the man, he is to be enclosed in manure up to his knees and a soft towel inside a rough towel tied around his neck and two people on each side pull until he strangles, and the soft towel on the inside was so the rough towel left no marks, so his execution would be symbolically accomplished by God Himself. There would be no human mark on him.
So they slam this woman in front of the crowd in the face of Jesus, and in verse 5, “Now, Moses in the law commanded us that such should be stoned. What do You say?” Verse 6, “This they said testing Him, that they might have to accuse Him.” They weren’t concerned with the woman. You want to know something? They were adulterers themselves. Back in chapter 5, Jesus told them they were adulterers. In chapter 5, He said to them, “You are adulterers because every time you look on a woman to lust after her in your heart, you’ve committed adultery.”
And He went on in chapter 5 to say, “And every time you divorce your wife for other than proper grounds and remarry another, you cause her to commit adultery, and you commit adultery, too. Your adultery is prolific.” And now they’re coming so sanctimonious, “We caught this woman in adultery, and Moses says she has to die.” If they really believed Moses, they’d have executed each other. They only wanted to trap Jesus.
Now, what is the dilemma? The dilemma is simply this: The people held up Moses. The people held up the law of God – and so had Jesus. Jesus said, “I’m not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill the law.” The people had lined up behind Moses. They had lined up behind the law of God – and so had Jesus. If Jesus says, “Don’t stone her” – and by the way, they had the rocks poised, they were really pressuring. If Jesus says, “Don’t stone her,” they would’ve said, “Aha! He is not of God for He defies Moses’ law, and we all know that God gave Moses the law.” So if He says, “Don’t stone her,” then He violates Moses.
On the other hand, if He says, “Stone her,” then He’s going to lose His reputation as a friend of sinners. Then they’re going to say to Him, “How come You didn’t stone all the rest of those sinners that You were eating with? How come You pick Your sinners to stone, and how come You pass Yourself off as some great humanitarian with compassion on the diseased and ill, and how come You’re supposed to help the bruised and the brokenhearted and the poor? What kind of love is that?” You can see the dilemma.
By the way, this is not a local issue. This is the most profound moral issue in the entire universe. They hit it right on the nose. They had Jesus in a dilemma that is the ultimate dilemma in all of theological thought. It is this: How does God harmonize His justice with His mercy? It is the epitome of all theological dilemmas. If God is a God of righteousness and a God of justice and a God of judgment by His holy nature, she must die. If God is a God of love and of grace and of kindness and of mercy and forgiveness, she must live. But how in the world can you harmonize those two things? That’s the dilemma.
The Old Testament, Isaiah 45:21 says, “God is a just God.” Amos 3:2, God says, “I will punish you for all your iniquities.” And yet the Bible says, “He forgives in Micah our transgressions.” That’s a paradox. How can God be a God of justice and forgive sin? How can He be a God of love and punish sin? You know what the answer is? Human wisdom has none. Just want to set you at ease. There’s no answer in human wisdom. This is the ultimate theological dilemma. Watch how He responds.
Verse 6, “But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground.” What is that? What’d He write? You know what He wrote? No, you don’t. Nobody knows what He wrote. I’ve heard all kinds of things. Nobody knows what He wrote. Do you know what I think He wrote? I don’t think He wrote anything. I think He just moved His hand through the sand. It was their moment. The rocks were poised. They were ready to fire. “What are you going to do with this woman? We caught her in the very act.” He moves the moment to Himself. He allows all their fury to be vented. He’s totally unruffled, just moves His finger through the sand.
Verse 7, “They persisted. They kept asking Him. Finally, He lifted Himself up and said, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’” Now, that isn’t even the question, but that’s the right answer. “First one of you without sin, go ahead, throw a stone.” And you know what He did after that? He stooped down and started – in the sand again and just let them fry. They knew each other, you see, and they knew what each other were like. You know what they did? Verse 9, “They were convicted by their own conscience.”
Now, let me ask you a question. If you were convicted of sin by your conscience in the presence of Jesus Christ, what would you do? Would you run to Christ for forgiveness? I would. What did they do? They ran away. The very opposite thing. That was the problem with the Pharisees, they never wanted to face the reality of their sin. As soon as they were convicted, instead of falling down and saying, “Oh, forgive me,” they went out one by one, and it says they began with the oldest. Why? They left first, because they had a lot more to remember. A lot more sin.
And Jesus was left alone – and guess who stayed – who stayed? The woman. Wouldn’t you think that she’d have split with everybody else? Get out of here. It’s embarrassing. No, she stayed. She was convicted of sin. They were convicted of sin. They reacted against Christ; she stayed. And when Jesus had lifted Himself up and saw none but the woman, He said unto her, “Woman,” – and by the way, that’s a term of respect. He respected her more than them. They were all sinners. We’re all sinners. You don’t get His respect by thinking you’re righteous. You get His respect by admitting you’re a vile sinner.
He respected her. “Woman? Hey, where are your accusers? There’s no one here to condemn you.” And she said, “No, Lord, no one.” He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
Now listen to this. You know what He said to them? He said, “The question is not how do you harmonize the judgment of God with the grace of God, the question is what right do you have to be this woman’s judge, you vile sinners?” In other words, “This is God’s business, not yours.” See? In other words, Jesus said, “You don’t even have a right to bring up the issue.” You say, “But – but they all left, there were no accusers.” He says, “Hey, if there’s nobody to accuse you, if nobody wants to prosecute, the trial is over.”
You say, “But how could He do that? I mean how can a holy God just say, ‘Go on, it’s okay, but don’t do it again.’ How can He do that? I mean how can God let her off the hook? Somebody has to die.” That’s just it. You know what Jesus knew as he stood there? I believe this with all my heart. When He said to that woman, “I don’t condemn you. Go, and sin no more,” you know what He knew in His heart, that divine heart? He knew full well that He would die on a cross for her adultery. He knew that. That was the only way. The only reason He could give her forgiveness was because He would bear in His own body her sin. It’s the only way – and He knew it.
That’s why I say, every time Jesus healed somebody, every time Jesus forgave somebody, He experienced the bitterness of the anticipation of the cross. That woman’s sin wouldn’t go unpunished; it would be placed on Christ, and He would die for her adultery. Now, let me tell you something, friends. That is being a friend to sinners, isn’t it? You look at Jesus Christ, and He’s willing to die for your adultery. He’s willing to die for your lies. He’s willing to die for your curses against His own name. He’s willing to die for your inequities in life. He’s willing to die for the foul thoughts and deeds and words that have come out of your mouth. He’s willing to die for every sin you’ve ever committed or ever will, and He says to you what He said to the woman: “Woman, I don’t condemn you anymore.”
Listen, I believe this woman was redeemed that day. She stayed to seek the forgiveness of sin. They left, and Jesus gave her what the law could never give her. Jesus said, “I don’t condemn you anymore.” “Why?” “Your sin is covered. It’s covered. Go, and don’t sin again.” That’s just what He says to us, isn’t it? In Christ, your sin is covered. “I don’t condemn you anymore, but go and don’t sin anymore.” He knew He’d bear her sin on the cross. What a friend to sinners. Jesus said He came for the hurting, the poor, the brokenhearted, and the sinners.
And I’ll tell you, when I look at the cross in that light, it just opens up a whole new dimension to me. I’m so thankful for what He did. I think often about those ten lepers in Luke 17. You know, He healed ten, and how many came back to say thanks? Only one. Only one, and He said to that one, “Your faith has made you whole.” He wasn’t talking about physical because He’d already done that for all ten, He was talking about spiritual. That one was redeemed. Jesus, the friend of lepers. Jesus, the friend of harlots. Jesus, the friend of sinners. I hope you’re grateful for what He’s done in your life. Are you? I hope so.